When I was just 9 or 10 years old, I found out that I had a true love and passion for science.
My mother had enrolled me in a science program at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and there I was able to design, build and test anything and everything that I could imagine. There were no limits put on my imagination. I spent my Saturday mornings designing kites, robots, maglev cars and other cool projects.
It was the freedom to design, fail and try again that helped me realize how cool science was.
As I grew older, I convinced my parents to invest in my passion for science a little bit more. This time, the investment came in the form of remote control cars. No, seriously—these weren’t everyday kids’ toys. These cars came in hundreds of pieces and you had to put them together on your own. But if you had some extra money to spend, you could modify and improve them as much as your budget would allow.
I remember spending countless days—and sometimes late into the night—with other young guys in the neighborhood, racing our cars, jumping them off of homemade ramps and playing crash derby.
As I got older, I realized these experiences helped me make the decision to become a mechanical engineer. It was my love for figuring out how things worked, investigating the unknowns, and building whatever I could imagine that solved the problem.
But I often wondered what had inspired other scientists and engineers to choose their careers. As I began to investigate, their responses all echoed the same theme. All of us were able to think back on childhood memories as young innovators where our creativity and eagerness to understand the world were encouraged and a lasting love of science was born and nourished.
It is those special moments, opportunities, experiences and mentors that we are able to take advantage of at a young age that help mold us in the person that we later become. For me, science is the coolest thing in the world, but I might not have realized this love without the opportunities my parents and teachers exposed me to.
This week, as Black History Month intersects National Engineers Week, many of us are thinking of ways to help more Black youth discover their passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Back in 2009, it was just this sort of thinking that led me and two friends to leave our comfortable corporate jobs as engineers and finance managers to launch a nonprofit organization called Project SYNCERE. Our mission was to work with underrepresented and disadvantaged students to prepare their minds and create pathways for them to pursue STEM careers.
We took it upon ourselves to be the change agents within our community to inspire young students to develop a love and passion for science and engineering. For us, it’s all about providing opportunities for engagement, exploration and excitement.
But there’s an additional benefit. Along with nurturing an interest in STEM, we’re helping our students develop skills and confidence that will help them succeed in college—and beyond. Our goal is to help students understand their true potential at a young age and inspire them to become the next generation of innovators and engineers.
Since our launch, we have served more than 11,000 students in Chicago. So far it seems to be working, as many of our students are now working as professional engineers or are in college in pursuit of their dreams.
But I’m not surprised. I’ve always thought that if kids like me could just have the chance to create solutions to real-world challenges and gain an understanding of how math and science plays a role in the world around us, they’d be hooked. Just like I was at their age.